One of the biggest differences between the European and the UK model of post-war democracy is that the first one produces mostly coalition governments, whereas the governments of the UK have been run almost exclusively by a single, majority party. That is the outcome of the First Past the Post system but also the belief that ‘strong’, one party rule is more efficient and more effective in delivering better quality of life for the electorate. However, the actual results do not confirm that, if we measure the UK’s quality of life by GDP per capita, which has been consistently falling. For example, in 1990, UK’s rank in GDP per capita in the world was 18th, whereas in 2018 it was 26th.
In my view, the biggest disadvantage of a single party government is the adversarial nature of politics as has been evidenced so plainly during the UK’s Brexit proceedings in the Parliament. This leads by extension to a deep polarization of society and again we have witnessed it during the Brexit campaigns. But there is even a greater disadvantage that really shows up in the longer term. The adversarial politics based on the majority of one party, which does not have to win the majority of the votes to rule the country, leads to short-term politics and constant swings in policies (no double majority is needed, i.e. the majority of MPs and over 50% of the votes in elections). The whole focus of the government is on winning the next election by tuning its manifesto to temporal whims of the electorate. If we return to Maslow’s two lowest levels of the Hierarchy of Needs (physiological and safety needs), that is exactly how people would respond. And that directly translates into the voters’ preferences to elect those, who give more and now – an ideal platform for populism.
Additionally, such an adversarial politics supresses by its very nature the inflow of new ideas by virtually eliminating smaller parties in the First Past the Post system. The voters have less choice and therefore are quite often either not voting at all, or voting tactically, which only rarely delivers the intended result.
Perhaps we should then consider coalition governments for the new, reformed democracy? Unfortunately, the answer is more complex, since coalitions also have their disadvantages. Just think about the influence that a dozen DUP MPs in the current British Parliament have had on the outcome of the Brexit proposals. It is immensely disproportional to the number of voters supporting that party. Furthermore, some people may still remember the fate of the Liberal Democrats coalition with Conservatives in 2010-2015 UK government. Each party in the coalition government will have to drop some of its Manifesto commitments, as Liberals had to do with their promise not to charge any University fees.
Finally, let us consider the minority governments, i.e. emerging from a single party having the highest number of MPs but with less than 50% of the seats in the parliament. Usually, it must get the support of a tiny party on a case by case basis. In the UK this is called confidence and supply arrangement like with the DUP in 2017 Theresa May’s government. That is similar to the model practiced in most Scandinavian countries and sometimes called contract parliamentarianism. In this model, the government passes a particular law if it can command the support of the majority of MPs. Ad hoc coalitions can thus be formed for passing a single law. I would consider this model the closest to what the politics of consensus means. However, to run it relatively smoothly you need an independent arbiter. In Scandinavian countries that, very active, role is played by the president. That model achieves the double majority rule, where most MPs and most voters (in a proportional voting system, which is another important ingredient) support a given Act of parliament. However, that system does not guarantee either that any legislation that is sometimes urgently needed will pass through the Parliament. Therefore, Political Consensus politics must also rely on some additional arrangements, such as those proposed by the Consensual Presidential Democracy (CPD).
In summary, Political Consensus in the narrow meaning of CPD requires:
- A system of governance with the President as the main counsellor and arbiter between the parties. He helps the Parliament to pass the legislation with the support of ad hoc coalitions, which may be different for each act of Parliament
- A legislation system that requires a double majority. This means there must be a proportional representation electoral system, which will allocate the mandates to the Parliament proportionally. Like in any parliament any act to be legislated will require the support of the majority of MPs. But the double majority principle would also require that the act gets the support of the majority of the voters. In CPD it can happen because the MPs would be elected using a proportional system, so any ad hoc coalition that may be needed to pass the act will also represent the will of the majority of the voters.
The advantage of such a system lies in its ability to introduce legislation with long-term commitments, such as in health and education, or as is the case in Sweden and New Zealand, agreeing 3-year budgets. Governments are formed much more quickly and the legislation is also passed faster than in coalition governments although usually not that fast as in the single party majority rule, like in the UK.
The positive consequences of Political Consensus politics, even in a limited form as proposed by CPD, are evident in politics and governance of the countries, which have tried it. These are the countries, where the politics of consensus is a norm. No wonder that all Scandinavian countries are in the top 10 most contented nations in the world, with Finland being the happiest country twice in a row (in 2018 and 2019).